The American Queen made its first voyage of 2013 this month, kicking off its second season as a slightly enhanced version of its 2012 self.
The Memphis-based American Queen Steamboat Co., which owns the 436-passenger paddlewheeler, said it invested more than $500,000 in the steamboat during its winter drydock to improve the onboard experience.
The American Queen, originally built in 1995, was relaunched by the American Queen Steamboat Co. in April 2012 after being out of service for two years (previously it was owned by the former Majestic America Line, which ceased operations in 2008). The move effectively marked the rebirth of Mississippi River cruising, an experience that had been all but dormant since the demise of Majestic.
The American Queen Steamboat Co. spent $30 million to purchase the American Queen from the federal government and refurbish it. The result was a vessel that looks much like the American Queen of lore: grand dining halls, lounges, bars and salons reminiscent of a bygone era of steamboating. The cabins have details such as antique furnishings, with 21st century upgrades like flat-screen TVs and plush bedding.
But during last year's launch, the company's executives acknowledged that some kinks in terms of the boat's interior spaces and onboard services needed to be ironed out. Now some of those kinks appear to have been addressed with a laundry list of upgrades.
The interior renovations were done at the Bollinger Shipyards in New Orleans, where the vessel had been laid up for the winter.
In addition to the aesthetic enhancements, the shipyard built an entirely new drive shaft for the steamboat and reinforced the paddlewheel after engineers discovered toward the end of last season that the existing shaft was cracked. The additional work forced the company to cancel the Feb. 7 and Feb. 15 American Queen sailings, for which impacted passengers were offered refunds and the opportunity to rebook.
New and improved Queen
Part of the challenge in updating a vessel such as the American Queen is maintaining its antique feel and charm, which pays tribute to a long tradition of paddlewheeling along the Mississippi River System, while also ensuring the vessel meets the standards of today's upscale clientele.
Consequently, the American Queen Steamboat Co. made enhancements with that goal in mind.
All the furniture in the public areas and the suites was either reupholstered or replaced. Additionally, all the staterooms or suites received new mahogany plantation shutters.
Paintings by Michael Blaser depicting river scenes have been placed along the hallways, evoking images of steamboats plying mighty rivers during the 19th century heyday of paddlewheeling in the U.S.
Perhaps some of the most dramatic changes have taken place in the vessel's dining areas. The main J.M. White Dining Room now features a new marble-and-granite entryway as well as fresh wallpaper and carpeting. There are new empire-style dining chairs and a mahogany wine wall showcasing a wide-ranging collection of wines.
The dining room also features a new double-sided buffet to accommodate a greater selection of options during breakfast and lunch.
Behind the scenes, there have been enhancements made to the galley, including new appliances purchased, so that the chefs onboard can better execute the Southern-influenced recipes and vision of culinary director Regina Charboneau. The menu ranges from beignets and bananas Foster French toast for breakfast to corn-and-shrimp fritters and pan-seared catfish for dinner; there is also a Sunday jazz brunch complete with buttermilk biscuits, crabs Benedict and savory grits with Gulf shrimp.
The Front Porch
At the bow of the ship was an area formerly known as the Front Porch of America, a popular place for resting, reading and relaxing. It has been transformed into the Front Porch Cafe, which will feature a more comprehensive alternative dining option. A small prep kitchen has been added that will enable the Front Porch Cafe to serve a light breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. In 2012, the Front Porch was serving only a light breakfast of pastries and cereals as well as sandwiches and snacks throughout the day.
New furnishings were also brought in for the revamped cafe.
This season, the River Grill on the sun deck will no longer serve dinner, as it had in 2012.
The hope, according to American Queen Steamboat Co. President and COO Ted Sykes, is that "after her makeover, public areas will appear even richer and more opulent, while back-of-the-house changes and additions improve efficiency."
The American Queen Steamboat Co. reported that it deployed a team of 100 workers to execute the upgrades. They tackled everything from new woodwork to custom-milled carpets to installing period fabrics.
Prices for American Queen sailings start at $1,495 per person, based on double occupancy, and include a one-night precruise hotel stay, shore excursions in each port and wine and beer with dinner.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.